How Baylor is funding programs to help reimagine Waco
At first glance, all you can see is a group of younger people swarming a grassy lot like a colony of busy ants. Three girls are carrying a ladder, which almost nicks a bemused guy, who ducks just in time. Four or five people are carrying paint cans, while others unload tarps and paint rollers from a white pickup truck. As the crowd parts momentarily, you can glimpse a modest, wood-planked house with peeling paint and a broken screen door.
It’s a familiar scene every spring and fall around Waco. For more than thirty years, thousands of Baylor students have participated in Steppin’ Out, a day of service when students go into the Waco and surrounding communities to serve a variety of needs—painting, garbage collecting, lawn work, minor construction projects—for local businesses, families, and individuals.
In addition to Steppin’ Out, students work within the community through philanthropic service projects sponsored by sororities and fraternities, through their churches, and in classroom projects. From a larger standpoint, the University has spearheaded programs like the BRIC (Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative) and McLane Stadium, both efforts that clearly benefit Central Texas residents and Baylor alike.
The disparity between the Waco community and Baylor can, at times, seem vast. According to 2016 census data, the median household income in Waco was $37,722, more than $20,000 below the state average. In contrast, the current cost of yearly tuition at Baylor is upwards of $40,000. While the vast majority of students receive some kind of financial aid, there is a lingering perception of privileged students living in a less-advantaged city.
Ashley Bean Thornton is, simply put, an expert on all things Waco, although she will laughingly deny that assertion. She is involved in literally dozens of Baylor/Waco projects, including writing a blog, Act Locally Waco; recording a weekly local community events spot on KWBU, the Baylor-sponsored NPR station; and leading weekend tours highlighting various areas around the city.
Even her job at Baylor is focused on Waco. As the senior director of informed engagement and continuous improvement, a title she dryly admits is a mouthful, Thornton is part of Baylor’s newly formed Office of External Affairs, which is tasked with supporting the informed engagement initiative found in Baylor’s Pro Futuris five-year plan. While the office might be relatively new, the idea behind it has been growing and changing for some time.
In 2016, Thornton formed a committee she called the Anchor Institution Group, a term she adapted from the idea that universities, hospitals, and other core businesses are the institutions that stay in a community when other smaller businesses leave. The committee was comprised of top Baylor and Waco leaders, including the Baylor President and Provost and Waco’s Mayor and City Manager.
At the first meeting, Thornton says, she drew a continuum line for how universities and towns work together. “On one end of the continuum is outright conflict, denoting universities and their home towns that don’t get along at all,” Thornton explains. “If you move down to the middle of that line, you get to the point of a school and a town working together on things that are important to both of them, and I think that’s at least as far as Baylor and the community are.”
But the key question, Thornton says, is what is beyond that point? “Would it be possible for us, as an anchor institution, and the City of Waco to work together strategically on issues that would be to the benefit of both of us? That’s kind of what the experiment is.”
That “experiment” is something that President Linda Livingstone is firmly behind. “When President Livingstone came into office, she did an analysis of a lot of the administrative units across campus,” says Jason Cook, Vice President for Marketing and Communications and Chief Marketing Officer. “One thing that we found was that we truly did not have a home for our community relations activities. She quickly saw that we can do a better job of aligning all community relations efforts on campus.”
Cook, who is over the new External Affairs Office, is quick to note that there are numerous individual community projects coming out of a variety of schools and offices on the Baylor campus. What the University is striving to do, Cook explains, is not to take over and manage those kinds of successful programs already in place, but instead to consolidate individual initiatives into one coordinated effort. “We have so many partnerships going on around the community—whether it be faculty, research projects, Student Life, community engagement activities—that we, as an institution, did not have a good handle on all of these touchpoints across the greater Waco area,” he says. “We need to organize it. That will allow us to look for better collaborations across campus, but that’s also going to allow us to better communicate the impact that Baylor has on the Waco community.”
Funding for this effort is part of Baylor’s operating budget, Cook says, and the University is currently searching for an associate vice president of external affairs, who will direct the work being done by Thornton and Ramona Curtis, director for community engagement and initiatives. Already, the office has established Bear to Bear, a STAR Test tutoring program for students at J. H. Hines Elementary in the Waco ISD.
Thornton says that she and Curtis want to ensure that institutional help is going out into the community in the right way. “It is possible to hurt in your desire to help,” she says. “Are we approaching nonprofits in town in a way that’s most helpful to them? Are there things we could tweak about the way our students are interacting with them that would make their life easier and probably make a better experience for our students?”
Greg Leman is also concerned about the Baylor/Waco relationship, but his focus is how to help Baylor students and other Waco residents create their own opportunities. A professor of entrepreneurship in Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business, Leman also served as director of LAUNCH, an arm of the BRIC that offers start-ups and established businesses a variety of services, including funding assistance, networking events, and executive coaching.
“Baylor was spending their own money to back and cover what I was doing at LAUNCH. That’s a big up-front investment,” says Leman, a former corporate engineer and inventor who has been with Baylor for more than twelve years. He is now transitioning from his position with LAUNCH to a venture sponsored by the newly formed collaborative StartUp Waco. “It came out of some joint investigation by people from Baylor, from city and county government, from foundations, and from the Waco Chamber of Commerce,” Leman says. “Strong engagement from the top at Baylor asked, ‘How do we join forces and make Waco the city that we want it to be and need it to be?’ What flowed out of that was the realization of how entrepreneurial activity needs to be one of the centerpieces.”
For the next eighteen months, Leman will spearhead a center called The Hustle, a five-thousand-square-foot shared office space that will be located in the Woolworth Suites at 605 Austin Avenue in downtown Waco. A business owner will be able to rent space in the center, receive peer-to-peer coaching, and get discounted rates on things like website development and business counseling.
The Hustle is truly a joint effort, Leman says. According to him, the Waco Chamber has put $100,000 toward start-up costs, and the County Commissioner’s Court recently voted to allocate $750,000 toward the project. Baylor’s contributions, Leman says, include “loaning” him to the project, along with continued funding for StartUp Waco. Officials expect The Hustle to be up and running by this summer.
Five years from now, Leman says, this effort could mean that more than a dozen new high-tech companies have moved to Waco and many more Baylor students are either employed by those companies or have created businesses of their own. “But if you go across the footbridge to East Waco and see that nothing really changed there, I would not count that as a full success,” he says. “You can build a superhighway between Baylor and Austin Avenue, but if there are no on-ramps from East Waco or the Hispanic community, then it’s just going to continue the long-term, divided-city reality. And I’m not interested in propagating that. For everybody that has good ideas, our job is to support whatever help they need from wherever they’re starting. That’s how I’m going to measure success.”
For Ashley Thornton, success will also be measured by those earnest Baylor students putting in their volunteer hours during Steppin’ Out. “By the time our students get to us, they understand volunteering,” she says. “But if that’s all they understand by the time they leave us, then we have not educated them as citizens.”
It’s not just about helping a Waco neighbor paint his house, she says, but also asking why he cannot afford to paint the house himself. “How do we integrate that into our transformational education so that when our students leave, they’re citizens in the sense that they know how to work together to make this a better place?”
Thornton will admit that there are no easy answers to that question, but she’s excited that Baylor, as an institution, is willing to put in the time and funding to find the answers. “What’s so inspiring about the idea of informed engagement is that we’ve stated a willingness to focus some energy on that,” she says. “You’re going to be a citizen wherever you live. Are you going to be better at it for having gone to Baylor?”
Jason Cook echoes that sentiment. “It’s great that we have so many students participating in philanthropic efforts, working in community assistance efforts. Selfless service is in our DNA as a Baylor family. Now, how can we institutionalize it when they are here as students and then take it with them? That’s the key goal.”
The former associate editor of the Baylor Line, Lisa Asher ’89, MA ’99, is currently manager of training in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences Advising.